Christian Nurture

By Horace Bushnell

Part II. The Mode.

Chapter 2


"For I know him, that he will command his children and his house hold after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord."--Genesis, xviii 19.

THE real point of the declaration, here, is not that Abraham will command his children, but that he is such a man, having such qualities or qualifications as to be able to command, certain to command, and train them into an obedient and godly life. The declaration is, you will observe--"For I know him;" not simply and directly--"For I know the fact." Every thing turns on what is in him, as a father and householder--his qualifications, dispositions, principles, and modes of life--and the declaration is, that what he is to do, will certainly come out of what he is. He will certainly produce, or train a godly family, because it is in him, as a man, to do nothing else or less. The subject raised then by the declaration is, not so much family training and government, as it is--

The personal and religious qualifications, or qualifications of character, necessary to success in such family training and government.

There is almost no duty or work, in this world, that does not require some outfit of qualifications, in order to the doing of it well. We all understand that some kind of preparation is necessary to fill the place of a magistrate, teach a school, drill a troop of soldiers, or do any such thing, in a right manner. Nay, we admit the necessity of serving some kind of apprenticeship, in order to become duly qualified for the calling, only of a milliner, or a tailor. And yet, as a matter of fact, we go into what we call the Christian training of our children, without any preparation for it whatever, and apparently without any such conviction of negligence or absurdity, as at all disturbs our assurance in what we do. Not that young parents, and especially young mothers, are not often heard lamenting their conscious insufficiency for the charge that is put upon them, but that, in such regrets, they commonly mean nothing more than that they feel very tenderly, and want to do better things than, in fact, any body can. It does not mean, as a general thing, that they are practically endeavoring to get hold of such qualifications as they want, in order to their Christian success. After all, it is likely to be assumed that they have their sufficient equipment in the tender instinct of their natural affection itself. So they go on, as in a kind of venture, to command, govern, manage, punish, teach, and turn about the way of their child, in just such tempers, and ways of example and views of life, as chance to be the element of their own disfigured, ill-begotten character at the time. This, in short, is their sin--the undoing, as it will by and by appear, of their children--that they undertake their most sacred office, without any sacred qualifications; govern without self-government, discharge the holiest responsibilities irresponsibly, and thrust their children into evil, by the evil and bad mind, out of which their training proceeds.

I know not any thing that better shows the utter incompetency of mere natural affection as an equipment for the parental office, or that, in a short way, proves the fixed necessity in it, of some broader competency and higher qualification, than just to glance at the real cruelties, even commonly perpetrated, under just those tender, faithful instigations of natural affection, that we so readily expect to be a kind of infallible protection to the helplessness of infancy. How often is it a fact, that the fondest parents, owing to some want of insight, or of patience, or even to some uninstructed, only half intelligent desire to govern their child, will do it the greatest wrongs--stinging every day and hour, the little defenseless being, committed to their love, with the sense of bitter injustice; driving in the ploughshare of abuse and blame upon its tender feeling, by harsh words and pettish chastisements, when, in fact, the very thing in the child that annoys them is, that they themselves have thrown it into a fit of uneasiness and partial disorder, by their indiscreet feeding; or that in some appearance of irritability, or insubjection, it has only not the words to speak of its pain, or explain its innocence. The little child's element of existence becomes, in this manner, not seldom, an element of bitter wrong, and the sting of wounded justice grows in, so to speak, poisoning the soul all through, by its immedicable rancor. The pain of such wrong goes deeper, too, than many fancy. No other creature suffers under conscious injury so intensely. And the mischief done is only aggravated by tihe fact that the sufferer has no power of redress, and has no alternative permitted, but either to be cowed into a weak and cringing submission, or else, when his nobler nature has too much stuff in it for that, to be stiffened in hate and the bitter grudges of wrong. I know not any thing more sad to think of, than the cruelties put upon children in this manner. It makes up a chapter which few persons read, and which almost every body takes for granted can not exist. For the honor of our human nature, I wish it could not; and that what we call maternal affection, the softest, dearest, most self-sacrificing of all earthly forms of tenderness and fidelity, were, at least, sufficient to save the dishonor, which, alas! it is not; for these wrongs are, in fact, the cruelties of motherhood, and as often, I may add, of an even over-fond motherhood, as any--wrongs of which the doers are unconscious, and which never get articulated, save by the sobbings of the little bosom, where the sting of injury is felt.

Here, then, at just the point where we should, least of all, look for it, viz: at the point of maternal affection itself, we have displayed, in sadly convincing evidence, the need and high significance of those better qualifications of mind and character, by which the training of children becomes properly Christian, and upon which, as being such, the success of that training depends. Few persons, I apprehend, have any conception, on the other hand, of the immense number and sweep of the disqualifications that, in nominally or even really Christian parents, go in to hinder, and spoil of all success, the religious nurture of their children. Sometimes the disqualification is this, and sometimes it is that; sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious; sometimes observable by others and well understood, and sometimes undiscovered. The variety is infinite, and the modes of combination subtle, to such a degree, that persons taken to be eminently holy in their life, will have all their prayers and counsels blasted, by some hidden fatality, whose root is never known, or suspected, whether by others, or possibly by themselves. The wonder that children, whose parents were in high esteem for their piety, should so often grow up into a vicious and ungodly life, would, I think, give way to just the contrary wonder, if only some just conception were had of the various, multifarious, unknown, unsuspected disqualifications, by which modes of nurture, otherwise good, are fatally poisoned.

Sometimes, for example, it is a fatal mischief, going before on the child, but probably unknown to the world, that the parents, one or both, or it may be the mother especially, does not accept the child willingly, but only submits to the maternal office and charge, as to some hard necessity. This charge is going to detain her at home, and limit her freedom. Or it will take her away from the shows and pleasures for which she is living. Or it will burden her days and nights with cares that weary her self-indulgence. Or she is not fond of children, and never means to be fond of them--they are not worth the trouble they cost. Indulging these und such like discontents, unwisely and even cruelly provoked, not unlikely, by the unchristian discontents and foolish speeches of her husband, she poisons both herself and her child beforehand, and receives it with no really glad welcome, when she takes it to her bosom. Strange mortal perversity that can thus repel, as a harsh intrusion, one of God's dearest gifts; that which is the date of the house in its coming, and comes to unseal a new passion, whereby life itself shall be duplicated in meaning, as in love and duty! This abuse of marriage is, in fact, an offense against nature, and is no doubt bitterly offensive to God. Though commonly spoken of, in a way of astonishing lightness, it is just that sin, by which every good possibility of the family is corrupted. What can two parents do for the child, they only submit to look upon, and take as a foundling to their care? If they have some degree of evidence in them that they are Christian disciples, they will have fatally clouded that evidence, by a contest with God's Providence, so irreverent to Him, and so cruel to their child. If now, at last, they somewhat love the child, which is theirs by compulsion, what office of a really Christian nurture can they fill in its behalf? They are under a complete and total disqualification, as respects the duties of their charge. They are out of rest in God, out of confidence toward Him, hindered in their prayers, lost to that sweetness of love and peace which ought to be the element of their house. Delving on thus, from such a point of beginning, and assuming the possible chance of success, in what they may do in the spirit of such a beginning, is simply absurd. What can they do in training a child for God, which they have accepted, at his hands, only as being thrust upon them by compulsion?

I might speak of other disqualifications that have a similar character, as implying some disagreement with Providence. But it must suffice to say generally, that there can be no such thing as a genuine Christian nurture that is out of peace with God's Providence--in any respect. On the contrary, it is when that peace is the element of the house, and sweetens every thing in it--pain, sickness, loss, the bitter cup of poverty, every ill of adversity or sting of wrong--then it is, and there, as nowhere else, that children are most sure to grow up into God's beauty, and a blessed and good life. The child that is born to such keeping, and lovingly lapped in the peaceful trust of Providence, is born to a glorious heritage. On the other hand, where the endeavor and life-struggle of the house is, at bottom, a fight with Providence; envious, eager, anxious, out of content, out of rest, full of complaint and railings, it is impossible that any thing Christian should grow in such an element. The disqualification is complete.

Another whole class of disqualifications require to be named by themselves; those I mean which are caused by a bad or false morality in the parties, at some point where the failure is not suspected, and misses being corrected by the slender and very partial experience of their discipleship.

They are persons, for example, who make much of principles in their words, and really think that they are governed by principles, when, in fact, they do every thing for some reason of policy, and value their principles, more entirely than they know, for what they are worth in the computations of policy. Contrivance, artifice, or sometimes cunning, is the element of the house. A subtle, inveterate habit of scheming creeps into all the reasons of duty; and duty is done, not for duty's sake, but for the reasons, or prudential benefits to be secured by it. Even the praying of the house takes on a prudential air, much as if it were done for some reason not stated. A stranger in the house, seeing no scandalous wrong, but a fine show of principle, has a certain sense of coldness upon him, which he can not account for. How much of true Christian nurture there may be in such a house, it is not difficult to judge. Here, probably, is going to be one of the cases, where everybody wonders that children brought up so correctly, turn out so badly. It is not understood that such children were brought up to know principles, only as a stunted undergrowth of prudence, and that now the result appears.

Again there is, in some persons, who appear, in all other respects, to be Christian, a strange defect of truth or truthfulness. They are not conscious of it. They would take it as a cruel injustice, were they only to suspect their acquaintances of holding such an estimate of them. And yet there is a want of truth in every sort of demonstration they make. It is not their words only that lie, but their voice, air, action, their every putting forth has a lying character. The atmosphere they live in is an atmosphere of pretense. Their virtues are affectations. Their compassions and sympathies are the airs they put on. Their friendship is their mood and nothing more. And yet they do not know it. They mean, it may be, no fraud. They only cheat themselves so effectually as to believe, that what they are only acting is their truth. And, what is difficult to reconcile, they have a great many Christian sentiments, they maintain prayer as a habit, and will sometimes speak intelligently of matters of Christian experience. But how dreadful must be the effect of such a character, on the simple, trustful soul of a little child. When the crimen falsi is in every thing heard, and looked upon, and done, he may grow up into a hypocrite, or a thief, but what shall make him a genuine Christian?

In the same manner, I could go on to show a multitude of disqualifications for the office of a genuine Christian nurture, that are created by a bad or defective morality, in parents who live a credibly Christian life. They make a great virtue, it may be, of frugality or economy, and settle every thing into a scale of insupportable parsimony and meanness. Or, they make a praise of generous living, and run it into a profligate and spendthrift habit. Or, they make such a virtue of honor and magnanimity, as to set the opinions and principles of men in deference, above the principles of God. Or, they get their chief motives of action out of the appearances of virtue, and not out of its realities. There is no end to the impostures of bad morality, that find a place in the lives of reputably Christian persons. They are generally too subtle to be detected by the inspection of their consciousness, and very commonly pass unobserved by others. And yet they have power to poison the nurture of the house, even though it appears to be, in some respects, Christian. Hence the profound necessity that Christian parents, consciously meaning to bring up their children for God, should make a thorough inspection of their morality itself, to find if there be any bad spot in it, knowing that, as certainly as there is, it will more or less fatally corrupt their children.

We have still another whole class of disqualifications to speak of, that belong, as vices, to the Christian life itself, and will, as much more certainly, be ruinous in their effects. Some of them would never be thought of as disqualifications for the Christian training of children, and yet they are so, in a degree to even cut off the reasonable hope of success. Probably a great part of the cases of disaster, that occur in the training of Christian families, are referable to these Christian vices, which are commonly not put down as evidences of apostasy, or any radical defect of Christian principle, because they are not supposed to imply a discontinuance of prayers or a fatal subjection to the spirit of this world.

Sanctimony, for example, as we commonly use the term, is one of these vices. It describes what we conlceive to be a saintly, or over-saintly air and manner, when there is a much inferior degree of sanctity in the life. There is no hypocrisy in it, for there is no intention to deceive; but there is a legal, austere, conscientiousness, which keeps on all the solemnities and longitudes of expression, just because there is too little of God's love and joy in the feeling, to play in the smiles of gladness and liberty. Now it is the little child's way, to get his first lessons from the looks and faces round him. And what can be worse, or do more to set him off from all piety, by a fixed aversion, than to have gotten such impressions of it only, as he takes from this always unblessed, tedious, look of sanctimony. What can a poor child do, when the sense of nature and natural life, the smiles, glad voices, and cheerful notes of play, are all overcast and gloomed, or, as it were, forbidden, by that ghostly piety in which it is itself being brought up? And yet the world will wonder immensely at the strange perversity of the child that grows up under such a saintly training, to be known as a person mortally averse to religion! Why, it would be a much greater wonder if he could think of it even with patience I

Bigotry is another of these Christian vices, and yet no one will assume his infallible capacity, in the matter of Christian training, as confidently as the bigot. Has he not the truth? is he not opposite, as possible, to all error? has any man a greater abhorrence of all laxity and all variation from the standards? Is he not in a way of speaking out always, and giving faithful testimonies in his house? Yes, that must be admitted; and yet he is a man that mauls every truth of God, and every gentle and lovely feeling of a genuinely Christian character. His intensities are made by his narrowness and hate, and not by his love. He fills the house with a noise of piety, and may dog his children possibly into some kind of conformity with his opinions. But he is much more likely, by this brassy din, to only stun their intelligence and make them incapable of any true religious impressions. There is no class of children that turn out worse, in general, than the children of the Christian bigots.

The vice of Christian fanaticism operates, in another and different way, but with a commonly disastrous effect. The fanatic is a man who mixes false fire with the true, and burns with a partly diabolical heat. He means to be superlatively Christian, but it happens that what he gets, above others, is the addition of something to his passions, which would be more genuine, if it were in his affections. He scorches, but never melts. He is most impatient of what is ordinary and common, and does not sufficiently honor the solid works and experiences of that goodness which is fixed and faithful. This kind of character makes a fiery element for childish piety to grow in. What can the child become, or learn to be, where every thing is in this key of excess? It is as if there were a simoon of piety blowing through the house, and it dries away all gentle longings and holiest sympathies of the child's affectionate nature, so that all attractions God-ward are suspended. A certain violence and harshness in the parental fanaticism wakens often the sense of injustice too, or hate, and makes the superlative piety appear to be no better, after all, than it might be.

Another Christian vice is created by a censorious habit. Not by that habit of judging and condemning, which takes a pleasure in condemnation itself--that is the vice of a Christless character, not of a Christian--but there is a large class of disciples who think it a kind of duty, and a just acknowledgment of the fact, of human depravity, to be seeing always dark things. They judge evil judgments because they will be more faithful, and will be only doing to others just as they do to themselves. This habit is like a poisonous atmosphere in the house. It kills all springing sentiments of confidence and esteem. That charity which believeth all things, and hopeth all things, appears to be already stifled in it. What shall a child aspire to, when there is no really estimable growth, and good, and beauty, any where?

It is a great vice also, as regards the Christian training of a family, that there is a habit in the parents of receiving nothing by authority, and really disowning authority in all matters of religious. God reigns himself by authority, and because he is God; and parents are to govern by authority, partly, in the same manner. If the parent is a debater with God in every thing, saying always No, to God, till he has gotten his proofs, the spirit will go through the house. The children will demand a reason for every thing required, and will put the parents always on trial, instead of being put under authority themselves. Nothing breaks down faster the religious conscience, or untones more completely the divine affinities of the childish nature, than to have lost the feeling, ceased to hear the ring, of authority. Abraham could believe God's words, and so it was in him to command his children after him.

Anxiousness is another infirmity, or vice of character, that has always a noxious effect in the training of Christian families. Where there is but a little faith, there is apt to be great anxiousness. And nothing will so dreadfully torment the life of a child, as to be perpetually teased by the anxious words and looks and interferences of this unhappy superintendence. And if the pretext given is a concern for the child's piety, the effect is only so much more disastrous. What can he think of piety, when it has only worried him at every play and every natural pleasure of his life? Just contrary to this feeble, half-believing, half-Christian vice of anxiety, the parental habit should be one of confidence; gladdened always in the faith that God is the child's covenanted keeper, and will never fail to guard the trust that is faithfully committed to his hands, never allow to grow up in sin what parental fidelity is training, by all reasonable diligence, for a godly life.

This enumeration of the moral and religious vices, that spot the beauty and mar the completeness of character, in one way or another, of almost all merely ordinary Christians, could be indefinitely extended. Nothing, in fact, is farther off, generally, from the truth, than the assumption, by nominally Christian parents, of their sufficiency, or their properly qualified state, as regards the training of their children. They are almost all disqualified, or under-qualified, to such a degree as to make their work perilous, and as ought to fill them with real concern for their success. What are we all, in the merely initial state of Christian living, but diseased patients, just entered into hospital? We are not all in the same sort of weakness and defect, but all weak and defective--one-sided, passionate, broken in principle, corrupted by mixed motive, lame in faith. How foolish then is it for us to be assuming that, because we have come to Christ and begun to be disciples, we are ready, of course, for the holy nurture and safe ordering of our families. How foolish, also, to be wondering, as we so often do, that the children of one or another Christian, or reputedly good Christian family, turn out so ill--as if it were some evidence of a singularly perverse and reprobate nature in such children. Little do we know what subtle poisons were hid in what we took to be the good Christian piety of those families. After all, it may have been much less good, or more exceptionably good, than we thought.

It may occur to some of you, as a discouraging disadvantage, that, where one parent is duly qualified for the training of the children in piety, the other is not, but is in fact, a real hindrance to the right and safe proceeding of the endeavor. The parents are never equally well qualified; and one, or the other of them, is likely to be a good deal out of line, in some kind of personal defect, or obliquity of practice. Sometimes one of them will be a purely worldly-minded person, or an unbeliever, or, it may be, even fatally corrupted by vicious habits. There is, accordingly, no hope of concert in the endeavor to train the children up in piety. And this, the other party, who is more commonly the mother, may be tempted in some hour of discouragement to think, amounts to a fatal disqualification, such as quite takes away the rational confidence of success. Let me come to her aid, in the assurance that God connects Himself even the more certainly with one party, if only there is, in that one, a believing and truly faithful spirit, prepared for the work. He pledges himself in formal promise to one party, in all such conditions, declaring that the believing wife sanctifies, takes away the defect of, the unbelieving husband. Let her also consider what is said of young Timothy--how the apostle figures the faith of the good grandmother, and her daughter the good mother, descending on Timothy in the third generation, when his father, all this time, was a Greek, probably an unbeliever and idolater. There was not force enough, you perceive, in all that father's influence to break the descent of the faith of these two godly mothers upon his son.

This, then, is the conclusion to which we are brought; that qualifications are wanted for this work as for almost no other, and that where they are really had, if it be only by one party, they are not likely to fail. But how shall they be obtained? that is the question. Who is subtle enough to go through this hunt of the character, and actually find every loose joint of morality ill his practice, every vice of defect, or distemper in his Christian life? No one, I answer--that is impossible. No weeding process, carried on by ourselves, ever did or can extirpate our evils. The only true method here is the method of faith; to be more perfectly and wholly trusted to God, more singly, simply Christian. God's touch in us can feel out every thing; every most subtle spot of wrong or weakness he can heal. The reason why we have so many of these spots and disqualifying vices is, that we are only a little Christian. Whereas, if we could be fully entered into Christ's keeping, and have our whole consciousness overspread and clothed by his righteousness, we should live, in every part, and be kept in holy equilibrium above our defects and disorders, all the time. Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ then as a complete investiture, and there will be no poison flowing down upon your children, from any thing in your life and example. If Christ is made, to those who trust in him, wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, what is there that he can not and will not be made? Wonderful is the completeness of any soul that is complete in him. How pure and perfect the morality, how wise the discretion, how gentle and full, and free, the life in which he lives! The house and its discipline become a most joyous element to children, when thus administered. Every thing good in it is welcome, even the restraints and supervisions; for they have a genera] air of confidence and hope and gentle feeling, that wins and not repels. Even authority itself is welcome, because it is enforced by character, and not by tones of violence, or dictatorial airs of heat and menace. Whoever comes thus into God's full love, to be in it and of it, has a true equipment for the family administration. If it can be said--Herein is Love, what else can really be wanting? This bond of perfectness, brings all needed qualifications with it, so that when the love or the faith working by it, really reigns and tempers the man by its impulse, it can truly be said, as of Abraham--For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord.